Most Idahoans appreciate the natural beauty and wildlife in the Panhandle. What they don’t see are the ecological struggles that go on deep in the forest – where the existence of an animal, if left untouched, might disappear.
Such is the plight of the Southern Selkirk Mountains woodland caribou, a small herd of only 17 animals that are native to British Columbia, northwestern Idaho and northeastern Washington. They are considered a trans-boundary herd that spends much of its time in British Columbia but crosses into Idaho and Washington in the winter. The herd is a subpopulation of woodland caribou that have made their winter home at the high elevations of those areas.
“When you get down to 17, you start worrying about various things such as six getting hit on the highway, disease or predation,” Chip Corsi, Panhandle Regional Supervisor for Idaho Fish and Game said. “It doesn’t take much for a population of that size especially with a slow reproductive rate to basically wink out.”
Southern Selkirk Mountains Woodland Caribou: A Threatened Subpopulation
The hurdles these animals face are many. Caribou, specifically woodland caribou, used to be found in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and the northern Rockies, but now only the Southern Selkirk Mountains woodland caribou subpopulation (herd) remains in Idaho and Washington. Different subpopulations of caribou are more prominent in northern Canada and Alaska.
Southern Selkirk Mountains woodland caribou’s problems are not new and started a century ago with habitat fragmentation and overexploitation, Bryon Holt, a lead biologist of caribou for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Idaho, said.
“Back in the 1900’s, late 1800’s, there was habitat fragmentation. The outcome of that has been a change in forest structure that has facilitated deer, elk and moose and has brought with them higher numbers of predators,” Mr. Holt said.
Wolves and cougars are the primary animals that prey on the caribou. Just in 2009, the herd’s numbers were up to 45, but these predators that moved into caribou habitat have taken their toll. A 2014 study by British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations indicated that there are three packs of wolves that have moved into the caribou’s habitat that have decreased their numbers to their current low. They monitor the herd via radio-collars.
“We looked at the data that British Columbia presented and the wolf numbers… and to us… we had to deal with this problem right now,” Mr. Corsi said.
In addition, two major forest fires in the 1960’s also changed the vegetation in the mountains back to a “zero stage,” Mr. Corsi said. The caribou eat lichen, a fungus found only on mature trees. Although their caribou habitat is plentiful, it is still recovering from those fires.
Conservation efforts have been ongoing since 1984 when caribou from a similar subpopulation were introduced for herd augmentation.
“A lot of those augmented animals didn’t grow as [we expected] them to grow,” Mr. Corsi said. With such a low birth rate and by being outnumbered by wolves, the herd’s population has plummeted.
Harvesting (hunting) predators, protecting habitat, translocation and establishing protected enclosures for reproductive female caribou, called maternal pinning, are some of the conservation efforts being spearheaded by a multi-agency, international collaboration.
Among the agencies involved are: Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Washington Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources in British Columbia, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Spokane tribe and the Naha tribe.
Idaho Fish and Game works with Idaho Department of Land and the Forest Service, the biggest landowners that have caribou habitat. The agency determines when and where timber harvesting can occur. They also restrict snowmobiling largely in the Northern Selkirk region.
“But right now, what seems to be driving down the herd is the wolf predation. Wolves are back on the landscape in the northern Rockies that weren’t abundant 10 to 15 years ago,” Mr. Corsi said.
Because of the remote locale, and since most of the herd spends its time on the British Columbia side of the border, the Ministry of Forests there has been monitoring and harvesting the wolves. They also have permission from Idaho Fish and Game to harvest wolves just over the border if necessary, he said.
Requesting Public Action and Comment
In spite of the groups working to preserve the trans-boundary herd, there are other subpopulations of caribou whose numbers are also dwindling. In total, there are 1,356 of the woodland caribou left in the same areas.
The Southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou has been on the endangered species since it was emergency listed in 1983. However, in 2012, the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Idaho State Snowmobiling Association petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have caribou delisted from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Upon review, the agency concluded that the Southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou did not follow the agency’s distinct population segment (DPS) policy, Mr. Holt, of the Service, said.
For this reason, the agency is proposing to amend the listing because the Southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou was incorrectly compared to the mountain caribou population of woodland caribou instead of the woodland caribou subspecies.
“We realized our error and, after assessing the status of the larger DPS, proposed to amend the listing to change it from the Southern Selkirk Mountains population to the larger Southern Mountain caribou DPS, which includes many subpopulations of woodland caribou like the Southern Selkirk population,” Mr. Holt said.
In other words, the agency recommends including 15 to 16 subpopulations within the Southern Mountains caribou DPS. The proposal is to list the DPS as “threatened” under the ESA as opposed to “endangered” because, in part, the larger DPS is composed of many subpopulations versus the herd only.
“Animals that are listed as threatened within the [ESA] are considered endangered in the foreseeable future,” he said. “If an animal is listed endangered, it’s actually endangered of becoming extinct.
The issue comes down to the reason the conservation agencies involved exist. Idahoans were the ones who initially petitioned “to preserve, protect and perpetuate all of Idaho wildlife,” back in 1938, Mr. Corsi, of Idaho Fish and Game, said. “It’s still a relevant statement today.”
The ESA proposal is open for public comment through the beginning of March. To submit your comment regarding the amendment to the Endangered Species Act, go to www.fws.gov or https://www.regulations.gov/#!home and search for docket number FWS-R1-ES-2012-0097.